Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.